Wagon Rouge is one of those places where, if I lived in the ‘hood, I’d be every day. And, apparently, it’s where a lot of people already are.
My intro to the unfettered Gallic offshoot of Brad Miller’s popular Red Wagon diner (Powell at Victoria) was to to walk into a near capacity room. It was early in the week, just after 6.30 p.m. I scored one of the last seats at the bar. Took one look at the menu. And phoned my trusty tasting panel friends to tell them to get right over.
I knew it would take a while to get a table but figured the wait would be worth it. And it was—especially considering it was soothed by a pint of Powell Street Porter, a truly respectable way to begin. I’ve raved about Powell Street Brewing before, and availed myself of a couple of their growlers (from right across the street). But I’ve never seen the Dive Bomb label before, which is (almost) as awesome as the beer.
As I chatted to my neighbours (“all the way from Burnaby Heights”) I savoured the seductive richness and texture of the house chicken liver parfait and caramelised onions ($6)—reason to return number two, and a great match with, reason number one, the porter.
It’s just about impossible not to meet your neighbours here. Wagon Rouge est petit—tres petit—which makes it all the more cosy and inviting. But if you want to be (almost) sure of getting a table my advice would be to arrive not long after opening, at 5 p.m. Either that or choose to dine late, à la continentale.
All you have to do to realise that this place leads with its heart is check out the chalkboard. It’s packed with irresistible suggestions. There’s a decidedly honest, rustic twist to everything. Wagon Rouge isn’t polished. But it is deliciously lusty in a way that you know you can’t do it justice in one visit; and you already sense you’ll be heading back for more.
Bistro Wagon Rouge: Classic French
The menu is no nonsense, hearty French fare, with the likes of simply prepared cassoulet, steak frîtes, bouillabaisse, braised lamb shepherd’s pie, and plenty more. Miller (whose previous gigs include Bistro Pastis and now, sadly, shuttered Au Petit Chavignol), knows his way around the classics.
He generally keeps it simple but with a few inventive twists—such as beef heart tartare, and beef cheeks Bourguignon.
Main course prices rarely break the $20 mark, with most items much less. You can go for a glass and some oysters; or stay for the full meal deal. Our plates were all hearty renditions, including a novel, deconstructed take on Cassoulet, plus perfectly cooked and flavourful steak, with abundance of fries (great aioli on request!).
The only blip in our evening was a tootie-fruity Rive droite, rive gauche Cotes de Rhone, which I wouldn’t rush to order again.
Never mind. All was forgiven with a trio of desserts, led by delicious financiers with lashings of almond slices.
Some people may find the room a bit cramped. No denying, it is that. But I think it adds to the authenticity of the place. Even though they had to take out the old booths, there’s still a hint of that down-to-earth diner atmosphere—that still harks back to the years when this really was a dockside neighbourhood before Ports Canada so thoroughly wrecked it. (Some kindly advice: My architect friend suggests a few well placed, inexpensive baffles and wall covering would help quieten things down.)
Reasons to return three, four, and five? Braised lamb shepherds pie; goujonettes; seared Albacore and salade niçoise; and there’s plenty more.
I can’t put my finger on it but there’s something about Wagon Rouge that reminds me of my first favourite Montreal haunt (Bistro de la Montagne) that disappeared only a few years ago. No it’s not perfect, and there is the occasional lapse. My boeuf Bourguignon might have been a little less cooked. But at these prices, seriously, who am I to quibble?
It’s not only about the flavours and the plates but about the whole package: the staff, the surroundings—and the clientele. It all just clicks.
And this is one wagon I can’t wait to get back on …
Bistro Wagon Rouge, 1869 Powell St., 604-251-4070. Dinner, Tues-Sun 5-10 pm.